SCIENCE / A smart house that does everything: Voice-activated curtains and robots that know what's in the fridge are the latest accessories, says Phil Dourado

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The Independent Culture
ROCK star Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame has a carpet which changes colour when he walks on it. When he claps his hands the picture window along one wall of his apartment, overlooking London's Covent Garden, changes from clear to opaque. When he wants the curtains to close, he asks them to.

In the Eighties, it was thought by those working in the field that the digital technology behind such 'smart' gadgetry would lead to a second wave of home automation. The post-war first wave (washing machines, dishwashers and other labour-saving devices) inspired the housebuilders of the Fifties to advertise their new homes with posters showing a pinafored robot toiling in the kitchen under the watchful gaze of a smiling housewife.

The association between modernism and automation remained strong throughout the Fifties, particularly in France. Jacques Tati parodied his countrymen's fascination with the automated home in the film Mon Oncle. The character he played, Monsieur Hulot, was terrorised by a nightmarish house of the future: self-opening doors and remote-controlled fountains reacted with predictable malice whenever the hapless hero went near them.

The French even have a word for it: domotique, as in robotique. Like the US, Germany, Finland and other European countries, they also have demonstrator projects showing that the 'intelligent home' is more than an abstract concept. In Britain, the nearest thing we have to a home that 'thinks' for itself is a gimmicky plan put forward by a bedroom company in Milton Keynes. Homes like Dave Stewart's are more a collection of disconnected gadgets than an integrated smart system.

The anticipated second wave of home automation led to a surge of activity by French and Japanese technologists in the Eighties, to make intelligent home products that we would really want to buy. Busy life styles, energy conservation and the special needs of the elderly and disabled at home could all be tackled by the panacea of the intelligent house - or so it was thought. But it hasn't happened.

'The problem was that it was essentially yuppie technology,' says Dr David Cann, of the Science Policy Research Unit, based at Sussex University. 'The second wave was led by consumer electronics firms with stagnant markets and was driven by their technologists,' he says. Wiring up people's homes and offering a whole new range of computer-controlled products was seen as the way forward, creating a new market to replace the saturated one in VCRs and televisions.

'There's a smart house in Japan built by Matsushita, for example, that's got a kitchen robot in it,' says Dr Cann. 'It knows what food you've got in the house and will tell you what recipes you can make based on the ingredients available.' But it isn't labour-saving at all. To keep it updated you have to use a light wand and 'swipe' into the computer the barcodes of everything you've bought each time you come back from the supermarket. And cauliflowers don't come with barcodes. Clearly, the misappliance of science.

What really killed off the market for 'yuppie technology' is what killed off the yuppie - the recession. The gadgets simply cost too much for anybody other than millionaire rock stars.

'I remember Thorn-EMI putting together a prototype automated house,' says Dr Ljubomir Jankovic of the University of Central England (formerly Birmingham Polytechnic), who is developing an intelligent microchip for the control of buildings and equipment. It included an integrated lighting system, allowing you to turn off any light in the house by pointing a hand control at the ceiling rose of the room you were in.

Video signals from tiny cameras in the rooms were integrated into the television system, so you could call up a window in the corner of the TV screen which showed you if the baby was still asleep, or who was at the front door, without interrupting your programme. The catch was that the equipment cost two

or three times as much as the house itself.

More practical applications have come from research aimed at using technology to manage office blocks. Dave Stewart's window, for example, has its origins in the need for open-plan offices which at the same time allow confidential meetings to take place. It is made from electrochromic glass, which responds to having a low voltage passed through it by re-orientating all its crystals so that their refractive properties change instantly. Clear windows can thus become opaque in seconds.

This principle has led architects to suggest that the facades of buildings could be coated with a glass layer impregnated with a fine logic circuit, like a low- grade microchip, controlling the way the building responded to light and shade and regulating the temperature inside. The glass would turn reflective on a sunny day, for example, if it sensed that too much heat was coming into the building.

Another idea being developed for office blocks is that of the intelligent elevator. The Japanese have developed a lift which learns, through experience, which floors are busiest and when. It then hangs around these levels to minimise waiting times, rather than staying at its last point of call or returning to the top or bottom of the shaft.

This kind of application comes closest to the real meaning of intelligent buildings, in that the technology allows the building to respond to the needs of its users. But its effectiveness relies on the relatively predictable routines of office life - which is why it is not relevant to, say, blocks of flats, where people's movements are far more erratic.

Other intelligent office management systems have failed to make it into the home for similar reasons. 'A technology-centred view of what constitutes an intelligent building would suggest that energy-efficient lights - which switch themselves on when someone comes into an office, and off when the last person leaves - would also be popular in the house,' says Jay McMahon of London-based architects DEGW. 'But they aren't and won't be, because people like to turn light switches on and off themselves.'

According to Liz Mandeville of RMDP, an intelligent homes consultancy based in Sussex, this is exactly the point: 'People experience this technology at work, and do not see it as something they want to bring into their homes. It's seen as cold, impersonal and there to organise you. People want to be in control of organising themselves at home.'

But there are exceptions, says Dr Cann. 'In France, some of the remote technology, in which control systems are operated over the telephone, has crossed over to be used in houses. Second home owners, for example, use it to phone their ski chalets and turn the heating on, so it's warmed up for when they arrive for a weekend. But it's hardly a mass market.'

One area where more productive advances are being made is in developing intelligent appliances and control systems that will help disabled and older people cope at home. Dr David Poulson of Loughborough University of Technology is helping to run an EC-funded project to develop independent living systems for them. Three smart homes have been set up in Finland, Spain and Germany, with various intelligent features built into household appliances and then linked to a central, PC-based control system.

'The washing machine, for example, automatically senses how much clothing has been put in, and how dirty it is,' says Dr Poulson. 'It sets the programme accordingly.' His research with elderly people has uncovered one lingering problem in home automation that applies to us all, however. 'The control systems are just too complicated to operate,' he says.

Until voice recognition technology becomes sophisticated and cheap enough to allow us to simply tell the house what to do, the fully automated vision of the Fifties, let alone the smart home that seemed imminent in the Eighties, is still a long way off. 'After all,' says Dr Poulson, 'look at the VCR. Most of us still can't operate that.'-